Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Years Of Ordeal, 1850-1859

When we last left off, after the first volume of Joseph Frank’s multi-volume account of the life and times of Fyodor Dostoevsky, our author was on the verge of arrest by the tsar’s secret police for his involvement in an underground literary club, the so-called Petrashevsky circle, who were not only reading but attempting to disseminate “seditious” writings. He had behind him only one successful novel, Poor Folk, which had initially been extremely well received, but was suffering now from a reappraisal, driven partially by a change in Dostoevsky’s approach to literature and partially by the resentment of his critics. By the time of his arrest, in the pre-dawn hours of April 23, 1849, none of his major works had been written or even conceived. The second volume of Frank’s project, The Years of Ordeal, describes not only his arrest and trial, the mock execution he endured, his exile in a Siberian prison, and his stint of mandatory military service, but how these events helped “regenerate” his convictions, providing him with the philosophical material he would excavate for the remainder of his life.

Nearly eight months would elapse between Dostoevsky’s arrest and his sentencing, though he was not to know the verdict until the morning of December 22, when a caravan of carriages, surrounded by mounted police, approached the prison block in which he and his colleagues had spent those long months. He was allowed a temporary hope: the prison guards returned to him his old clothes, confiscated upon his arrival, and led him out of the prison and into the carriage. Freedom at last? After a thirty minute ride, they arrived in Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square, where a large crowd was gathered around a makeshift scaffold. A priest, cross in hand, added to the sense of foreboding, while a functionary read their sentence aloud: “The Field Criminal Court has condemned all to death sentence before a firing squad, and on December 19 His Majesty the Emperor personally wrote: ‘Confirmed.'” The prisoners were given long white blouses and nightcaps, to serve as funeral shrouds, and the priest approached each one in turn, calling for them to repent. Dostoevsky even thought he saw a cart filled with coffins in the distance. Official documents reveal that there was never to be an execution; the entire theatre in Semenovsky Square was contrived by the Tsar, both to put the fear of god into the condemned men and to give him the opportunity to appear merciful. On the first count, at least, the tsar’s ruse would prove to be a resounding success.

One of his co-conspirators, writing of these events years later, described what might have been Dostoevsky’s last words, an exchange he had with a third man, a dedicated atheist: “Nous serons avec le Christ” (We shall be with Christ), Dostoevsky reportedly told the man, who replied bluntly: “Un peu de poussière” (A bit of dust). It is significant that they spoke to each other not in their native Russian but in French, the language of European liberalism, and we may surmise from Dostoevsky’s later recollections that his faith in a life after death was far from unshakeable. Take a minute to put yourself, imaginatively, in Dostoevsky’s place. The sentence has been pronounced, the scaffold has been erected, and you believe, with total certainty, that your death is imminent. What dread would you experience? What regrets would run rampant through your mind? The lives you did not live, the love you did not give, the works of art left unrealized, lost to eternity. For Dostoevsky, the immediacy of his own demise threw all his life into stark relief, but when the hammer was supposed to fall, when the last possibilities were to be closed off to him, he was instead granted new life. Years later, he would recount his experience of that day to his wife: “I cannot recall when I was ever as happy as on that day. I walked up and down my cell in the Alekseekvsky Ravelin and sang the whole time, sang at the top of my voice, so happy was I at being given back life.” To his brother, he renewed his commitment to life and to art:

When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul – then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity. Si jeunesse savait [If youth only knew]! Now, in changing my life, I am reborn in a new form. Brother! I swear that I will not lose hope and will keep my soul and heart pure. I will be reborn for the better. That’s all my hope, all my consolation.

It was as close to a literal rebirth as human beings can come, and it marked the most important philosophical transition in Dostoevsky’s life, at precisely the moment when he would need it most, for if his life was spared, his sentence was still harsh: five years in a Siberian prison, among rough men in rougher conditions. Nonetheless, he reassures his brother, he is prepared, armoured by his newfound convictions: “I am neither downhearted nor discouraged. Life is everywhere, life is in ourselves, not in the exterior. I shall have human beings around me [in Siberia], and to be a man among men and to remain one always, not to lose heart and not to give in no matter what misfortune may occur – that is what life is, that is its task, I have become aware of this. This idea has entered into my flesh and blood.”

Here we glimpse the central idea of the late Dostoevsky, the Dostoevsky of The Idiot and Demons and Crime and Punishment: that the individual will alone is sacrosanct. Frank summarizes the transition: “To struggle to preserve one’s humanity, ‘no matter what misfortune may occur,’ is thus now the primary task of life; ‘the exterior’ is firmly relegated to a secondary status, and absolute priority is assigned to the obligation of the individual to uphold his human integrity under all circumstances.” In mid-19th century Russia, however, such opinions were considered outmoded, indeed, the opposite of prevailing opinion, which held that an individual’s actions could not be judged without considering the wider context of their social station. [In Marxism, with its quasi-racial theory of class belonging, we glimpse the perfection of this latter ideal: there is no individual, only the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, and guilt or innocence hinge entirely on which class you belong to.] From this moment onwards, Dostoevsky was destined to clash with the Russian intelligentsia and the literati in control of the major journals and literary reviews, but he had a long and painful road to travel before he could return to writing.

Of the five years Dostoevsky spent in exile in Siberia, and of his subsequent mandatory military service, I will be brief. He encountered, for the first time, a class of people he had until then only read about, and rather than the blameless oppressed, he discovered his fellow prisoners to be as perfidious, conniving and even murderous as their sentences would suggest. And yet even here, in this nest of vipers, he also encountered kindness and self-sacrifice, made all the more touching by the context. This prison, this “house of the dead,” exposed Dostoevsky to a far wider range of human behaviour and motivation than he could ever have hoped to encounter in the relatively wealthy and well-educated circles he had been accustomed to, and he took special pains to note down all that he saw. One particular observation he made will resonate through his later work, and that is man’s relationship to his work. When the prisoners were forced to do mundane tasks around the prison compound, such as repairing a broken fence, they took to their work slowly, and with little enthusiasm; on the other hand, the private work they managed to acquire, and which hinged on whatever skills they had acquired before their imprisonment, became not only a source of income but of self-respect, even of meaning. “If it were not for his own private work to which he was devoted with his whole mind,” Dostoevsky wrote, ” a man could not live in prison.” But there was a third kind of work, imposed upon the prisoners by the guards when no normal work was needed, and it involved pointless busywork, useful only as a punishment: perhaps moving heavy boxes from one area to another and back again. This last variety of work, work for the sake of work, drove the convicts half-mad with despair. Dostoevsky would later write about an idea, inspired by witnessing their despair:

The idea has occurred to me that if one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it and dread it beforehand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character. Though the hard labor now enforced is uninteresting and wearisome for the prisoner, yet in itself as work it is rational; the convict makes bricks, digs, does plastering, building; there is sense and meaning in such work. The convict worker sometimes grows keen over it, tries to work more skillfully, faster, better. But if he had to pour water from one vessel into another and back, over and over again, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another and back again – I believe the convict would hang himself in a few days or would commit a thousand crimes, preferring rather to die than to endure such humiliation, shame and torture.

In case the theological stakes are lost on us, Frank supplies them for us: “Not to believe in God and immortality, for the later Dostoevsky, is to be condemned to live in an ultimately senseless universe; and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because, refusing to endure the torment of living without hope, they have become monsters in their misery.”

When The Years of Ordeal concludes, Dostoevsky has returned from his exile, albeit not to St. Petersburg, where he has been denied entry, but to the outer suburbs. He has a wife and a step-son, and a great deal of financial debt, accrued over his time in prison. The Russian literary scene has all but forgotten him, and those few who do remember the name of Dostoevsky do so with contempt and condescension. None of these obstacles, however, can seriously dampen his spirits, for the compensation he received for more than five years of hard labour and exile, for the loss of property and prestige, was to him priceless: a renewed faith in god and life, and a sense of purpose founded thereon.